STORRS, Connecticut — UConn opened practice Wednesday with a lot of new faces, but the same old goal of winning a national title.
The two-time defending women's champions, who lost center Stefanie Dolson and guard Bria Hartley to graduation, have reloaded with the nation's top recruiting class.
Freshmen guards Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams, Courtney Ekmark and Sadie Edwards join a strong core of veterans, which includes Breanna Stewart, the reigning national player of the year.
"We have two teams," coach Geno Auriemma said. "We have a team of older guys that don't know anything but winning national championships and we've got a team of young guys that don't know anything about winning any games."
Auriemma said he's hoping to find two shooters among the newer players who can help replace the production of Dolson and Hartley. He's also hoping to get a major contribution from 6-foot-2 forward Morgan Tuck, who received a medical redshirt after playing just eight games as a sophomore and undergoing major reconstructive surgery on her right knee in January.
Tuck, who will still have three years of eligibility at UConn, said she is pain free and was excited to get back to practice Wednesday after her lengthy layoff.
"I think when you have to really work for something, now, when I'm back playing, it makes it a lot more special," she said.
Nurse may be the freshman most ready to play a role on the team. The 6-foot guard from Hamilton, Ontario arrived on campus just over a week ago after playing against the world's top players as part of the Canadian national team at world championships in Turkey.
"I definitely feel more strong mentally," she said. "I have more confidence in my game and am seeing plays a little bit more quickly than I used to."
But this is clearly Stewart's team.
The junior won a gold medal playing for Auriemma and the U.S. national team in Turkey and has a goal of leaving school with four NCAA titles. She said she's been working on her ball handling skills and believes she's improved her ability to break down any opponent one-on-one. She says she's also ready to become a bit more vocal on the court.
"Bria and Stef are gone," she said. "They were the leaders last year and obviously it's a role that needs to be filled. What I've accomplished the past two years has given me a lot of experience to help lead this team."
She's expecting to get some assistance there from honorable mention All-Americans Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Moriah Jefferson.
The Huskies come into the season on a 46-game winning streak, with a front-loaded schedule.
They will open next month in California with games against UC Davis and perennial power Stanford. They also play top teams such as Notre Dame and South Carolina.
But they face a weaker-than-normal conference schedule because of the departure of Louisville for the ACC and Rutgers to the Big Ten. Those teams have been replaced by the likes of Tulsa and East Carolina.
"There's nothing we can do about that, so there is no point getting upset about it," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "We can only win the games they put in front of us and then worry about being ready for the NCAA tournament when the time comes and we get there."
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